Cai Guoqiang is one of the most inimitable personalities to appear in contemporary international art, an artist who by traditional standard remains impossible to categorize. He produces "gunpowder paintings" on Japanese paper, employing Chinese ink-wash techniques, yet adding a novel touch of his own that transforms smoke and gunpowder into creative media in an ingenious fusion of technology and art. The breadth of Cai's vision has taken him to locations all around the world, where both modern cities and ancient ruins of different cultures are transformed into sites for new creative projects. Cai is neither a representative nor an inheritor of any given aesthetic tradition, eastern or western; his goal is to transcend the cultural gap between East and West and past and present, to show viewers a vision of the vast arcs of time and space and help them see the world anew with an awareness of universal values. In this respect, perhaps, the notion of "the Tao of Heaven," a view of the universe held by the ancient Chinese, remains a presence that informs his work. If viewed in terms of predefined categories, Cai's creative work combines elements of explosions, land art, installations, performance art, calligraphy, and conceptual art, but his forms possess a vitality, creativity, and added levels of meaning far beyond the sum of those individual elements. The works that best display Cai's unique creative concepts and achievements derive from a series he created between 1989 and 1999, his Projects for Extraterrestrials.
Cai's Projects for Extraterrestrials series comprises a total of 33 works, beginning with "No. 0" and concluding with "No. 32". The series as a whole represents a high point in the realization of Cai's creative direction in the 1990s, and individual works of the series have performed well at auction, fetching excellent hammer prices that reflect the enthusiasm of collectors. These works have a magnificent, imposing energy and a grandeur of conception that speaks to the ages; in them, Cai introduces a unique concept all his own, the idea of aliens as an imaginary audience for his art. Through his art, he introduces the history of the Earth to these distant watchers, in order to stimulate exchanges and dialogues between us. Each of the works explores a theme having to do with the natural phenomena of the Earth, the universe, or ancient and modern civilization. As Cai recreates these ideas through his explosive art, exploring the Earth's history and civilization, he urges viewers to leave behind narrow individual perspectives and view spectacles of primordial chaos and creation, offering them new realizations about the universe, nature, and the traces of life on Earth. Project for Extraterrestrials No. 22, Shifting Continents, is mimicked with explosives, the forces and the shocking waves of shifting plates on the crust of the primordial earth; No. 32, Dragon Sight Sees Vienna, recreated early humans' imaginative vision of a dragon twisting through the clouds by means of a fireworks display in the sky over Vienna. Cai's gunpowder blast drawings for both these events were placed on sale through the auspices of Christie's Hong Kong and has brought excellent prices. For its spring Evening Sale this year, Christie's Hong Kong presents the seventh work in the series, Rebuilding the Berlin Wall: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 7 (Lot 511).
Cai Guoqiang's Rebuilding the Berlin Wall dates from 1991, or 28 years after the original construction of the wall. The concept behind the work involved placement of gunpowder and a 2800m long fuse on the site of the original wall, which would burn for a total of 28 seconds after its ignition, creating a fleeting wall of light that would soon disappear and remind us of the separations, scars, and injuries of history. The ignition of the wall of light was to be broadcast live by satellite around the world-and, on another frequency, broadcast into space! The concept informing the work was complex and multifaceted, probing ideas having to do with walls and the gulfs between human beings.
The construction of the Berlin Wall represented an important phase in modern history. After World War II, the world essentially split into two mutually hostile ideologies and power blocs, and Berlin became a point of contention between the two. West Berlin was under the control of western powers, while the Soviet Union occupied East Berlin. Citizens of Berlin, who could once travel freely between its eastern and western sectors, were barred from doing so as Cold War tensions rose and the government of East Germany in 1961 began construction of the 2800m wall, blocking the movement of people and the exchange of ideas. The wall stood for 28 years, and another phase of history was marked out when the wall fell in 1989. The building of the wall had meant the segregation of a people, and a world, hence their isolation from each other. Many citizens of the city or members of the same family were tragically separated, sometimes for life, and the peoples of East Germany and West Germany, who had shared a common cultural heritage, becoming irremediably estranged by their long separation. Yet such a political, spiritual, and cultural alienation was never unique to Berlin alone, but has been played out generation after generation throughout the course of history, in the East, the West and around the world as a result of civil wars, the separation of territories such as China and Taiwan, and ideological conflicts. Thus Cai's idea of recreating the Berlin Wall on its original site in a burning wall of fireworks was a deeply symbolic reexamination of events: for even if the wall has long since been brought down, it will always remain as a mental barrier. Can humankind ever overcome such mental barriers? It is tougher to bring down mental walls than physical ones-they are invisible and their existence sometimes remains unkown, yet in the long run of human history they have inflicted cruel scars on our psyche. Just as in Cai's planned Berlin project, the thought-provoking Rebuilding the Berlin Wall: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 7, he uses the blast and smoke of fireworks to create a burning image of the Berlin wall in scorched residues on a base of Japanese Washi paper.
This is a transient wall! But in our long human history, there have been so many times when physical walls and mental walls have been burned across our civilizations-between individuals, between peoples, and between nations.
-Creative manifesto by Cai Guoqiang, written in ink and brush on the 5th and 6th panels
Beyond ideas of the mental walls, Rebuilding the Berlin Wall discovers further meanings implicit in the notion of walls and barriers. The ignition of the wall of light was to be broadcast around the world even while it was simultaneously to broadcast into space. Thus the moment the wall of light came into being, the same image would appear on TV screens in households around the world: in an abstract manner of thinking, at that instant, a line would appear circling the world, unifying it, and perhaps making us all more aware of the shape of our world and our internal connection with the rest of humanity. However, those without televisions, those who could not participate and be witness to this event, would be rejected from this participation forever. From the alien's point of view, watching from space, would they see in that instant, in that sparkling line connecting all humanity, any sign of unity? Or would they see the newly created divisions of the present age? Based on the concept of walls, Cai has derived new ideas about the gulf between human beings that have fundamental values and significance for all who share this planet.
The wall of light that Cai envisioned and the blast impression each were to last for 28 seconds, metaphorically suggesting the 28 years of separation enforced by the Berlin Wall. Twenty-eight years is a long span that passes slowly in the consciousness of an individual or even in the recent decades of modern history, but is only a brief moment in the consciousness of the ageless Earth and universe, disappearing in an instant like the beautiful smoke and flash of fireworks. The brief wall of light in Rebuilding the Berlin Wall makes us aware of the smallness of humanity, of the way that the cultures and values that are so important to us change over succeeding generations, while all around the small space and time occupied by humanity is the great power of eternity.
A million years is contained in a second, yet we tend to forget the second as soon as it happens.
-Robert Smithson, "Entropy and the New Monuments"
The temporal outlook displayed in the art of Cai Guoqiang originates from one of his youthful travels. This took place in the early 1980s, when China was just beginning its period of opening and reform and giant waves of new ideas, technology, and culture was pouring into the nation. Modern western culture and ideas seemed at odds with China's traditional culture and arts, and Cai Guoqiang stated the he had "gradually lost my handle on how to make judgments." He set out on a journey following the Silk Road and into Tibet, hoping to find some kind of new source in the ancient territory and losing himself in nature and the relics of past civilizations. The trip took him through the Tibetan plateau, Xinjiang, the Dunhuang caves, and the Yellow River basin, and above the desolate plateaus and deserts he crossed he saw a vast canopy of sky and stars extending to the farthest sphere of the universe. All of this, he believed, would, along with the Earth, pass through its own cycles of reincarnation and extinction, and it was within this context that he began to view the ceaseless turmoil of human affairs from ancient times to the present.
I entered in to a dialogue with all that was around me, the soul of the universe, dreams of ancient times, my feelings as a young sexually aware man, feeling close to nature, and in love with it, but also feeling bitterness, all these things that were branded on my heart.
In the colors of the earth and sky around us, in the depths of the ancient cosmos, we find love in the gift of life amid the vast flow of time, and as one of the life forms on earth, human beings have the capability to imagine and understand this earth and this gift of life, and to enter into a dialogue with the ancient firmament above us.
Humans have such meager strength, their lives are so short, and the times and spaces of our human lives are surrounded by the power of eternity! The natural world is imprinted with a limitless past and an endless life force, and we humans with our short history should look to nature and its larger history as a source of strength. If we do, we can create a better history for ourselves. I think it's terribly important to understand your own country, its people, and its history. They didn't think that way during the Cultural Revolution, when history and culture were just unwanted burdens from the old society. But I've seen the historical artifacts of the distant Chin and Han dynasties for myself, and I've felt the natural, primeval force of those times, the boldness and ruggedness of those people and their awe before the supernatural. These have all played a strong part in shaping my outlook as an artist.
By the time his trip through China ended, Cai's philosophy of time and his basic artistic outlook had already taken shape. He began his Projects for Extraterrestrials series, in which his responses to his travels, his imaginings about the distant past, and thoughts about the Tao in nature entered into his basic creative concepts. His philosophy, seemingly near to the "Tao of Heaven" concept, had deep roots of origin in traditional Chinese culture and its view of the universe. Many commentators have expressed appreciation for the awareness of time exhibited in Cai's work and the broad view expressed in his reexamination of human history, but it may not have noted the deep roots these ideas have in the artist's personal experiences and his Chinese cultural background. While it is true that the broad outlook of Cai's work crosses over cultural and geographic boundaries, he has never rejected his Asian heritage, and always borrowed elements of Asian art which thus, further enriched his formal vocabulary. He remains committed to the ink medium and inscribes the concepts of his works on paper in ink, and he employs long Chinese-type scrolls and Japanese screens as backdrops on which he creates his imaginative spaces. Even his gunpowder blasts can be seen as a tribute to his hometown of Quanzhou, known for its makers of explosives. Intriguingly, even the most local of arts or cultures can still be linked to world trends, and for Cai, this is perhaps where cross-regionalism begins to extend toward a greater world unity. Though just a small seaside town, Quanzhou has been a port of trade since the Song and Yuan dynasties, making it a hub for cultural and business exchanges with foreign countries. It was the port of origin for the maritime silk road, and when Marco Polo left China on his return trip to Venice, he set sail from Quanzhou. Cai Guoqiang's journey from Quanzhou runs in parallel, transporting to the international stage with his artistic concepts firmly rooted in Chinese culture.
Cai Guoqiang's Projects for Extraterrestrials, beyond their philosophical depth and their ability to project time's vastness, are all valuable explorations into the nature of art and aesthetics. Cai's fireworks radiate a brief flash of conflict and explosiveness, like the beautiful haloed nebulas that stretch out in the deep vaults of the night sky. These nebula and galaxies seem to spread out across infinity, and the brief instant of their joyful creation leaves us with sensory impressions that vanish in an instant. To think of all the light years and endless rebirths in the depths of space that lie behind our brief glimpse of this beauty sparks metaphysical reflection on the miraculous wonder of time and space. A close-range viewing of Cai's gunpowder blast impression "drawings" reveals marvelous details in their materials and textures. We associate explosions, violence, and scattering with gunpowder, and despite the delicate appearance of the Japanese Washi paper, it is able to absorb and retain the impressions of light and heat of the blast. After the fireworks have vanished, traces of the explosions are retained in washes and halos of monochromatic black whose variations in depth and density create rich worlds of visual experience and pulsating motion. Cai's imaginary Berlin wall was to spread out over its defined space in an illusory wall of smoke and fire and disappear in 28 seconds, but the mental image of this wall has a concrete counterpart in the traces of smoke and fire on the paper, though even these traces cannot completely represent the significance of the transitory element of Cai's explosive art. For Cai Guoqiang, art is an exploration that seems to place in the range between the visible and the invisible, the real and the imaginary, and the material and spiritual worlds, crossing into the opposing territories on either side of the lines that divide those dualities, just as the line of light and fire in Rebuilding the Berlin Wall would flash into reality then vanish into oblivion. Making gunpowder his signature medium, the advent of his creative works in 1984, it is Cai's way of exploring the boundaries between the visible and the invisible, between what is determined and what is unpredictable. With this substance of Chinese invention, Cai fondly recalls his origins in Fujian's Quanzhou, where it is manufactured, and at the same time expresses his respect for China and its history. Gunpowder was not originally intended for aesthetic applications, and for both artist and viewer alike, its uncontrollable nature makes it highly unpredictable. This means that Cai's approach must be at least partly experimental, as he tests the limits of what gunpowder can do as a medium and how to exert some control over creative outcomes. With no prior expectations about what will happen when he ignites the gunpowder or fireworks, he simply looks forward with anticipation to the revelation of success or failure in each work. And the images created by each explosion are just like those half-intentional but not completely predictable effects of the washes of ink in Chinese landscape paintings, all the more evident of the link between the aesthetics of the unpredictable in Cai Guoqiang's gunpowder-based art and his own native Chinese culture.
Gunpowder and fireworks make bizarre artistic mediums: they are violent but beautiful, commonplace but still miraculous, and are perhaps the only artistic medium in which no thought is given to their permanence or preservation, but only to that one moment of brilliant beauty. By means of gunpowder, art frees itself from the illusion of life in perpetuity and comes face to face with temporality. Such art comes closer to the reality that all other things face and edges closer to the real pulse of life as we live it today. Cai Guoqiang's Projects for Extraterrestrials combine time, process, action, observation, performance, and events into a unique art form, an aesthetic that rejects materialist tendencies and embraces the unpredictable. Beginning with defined social issues at specific sites like the Berlin Wall, his works derive universal meanings extending far beyond the moment and the immediate locality, generating a new focus on our cultures and interpersonal relationships. Cai's Extraterrestrial series comprised a variety of conceptual projects, some of which were incapable of complete realization due to the risks or material resources involved, and while Rebuilding the Berlin Wall is one such work, its marvelous concept was nevertheless captured on a long scroll of Japanese Washi paper, a valuable document of Cai Guoqiang's artistic processes and thoughts about human life. Following its creation in 1991, Rebuilding the Berlin Wall has compiled an extensive record of publications and exhibitions at venues around the world, where it has been received with great interest and appreciation.